It was a Friday night after a busy week and Sarah Milosevic was experiencing the same tumult of emotions she remembered from her first pregnancy – fatigue, excitement and anticipation. She was nine months pregnant and scheduled for an induction the following Monday. She needed to rest, but her 18-month-old daughter, Jorja, wouldn’t settle, so Sarah decided to put her grizzling toddler in her car seat in the hope that the driving motion would soothe her. It was just three sleeps until Sarah would give birth, and her baby – another girl – had engaged.
“I had all her clothes washed and in the drawer. Her bed was made,” Sarah says. “I’d already scrubbed the house twice, as you do. Everything was done. We had the bassinet that’s been in the family since my aunt was a newborn. It was a family heirloom.”
On that night, August 29, 2014, Sarah strapped baby Jorja into the back seat next to her husband Peter’s son Nicholas, then 13, and got into the passenger seat. Peter was going to drive them to her parents’ house, which was not far from their own home in Queensland’s Lockyer Valley. It was 7.45pm and the roads were quiet. The Milosevics pulled up to a set of traffic lights where Peter checked before making a turn.
“The intersection was completely clear,” says Sarah. “Something made me turn around.” She saw a car coming towards them. “I said to Peter, ‘He’s going to hit us.’” The vehicle slammed into one side, T-boning the family wagon and jolting the five beating hearts inside.
Sarah was knocked unconscious. Her head went through the passenger window and the metal chassis crumpled on impact, trapping her in the wreckage. Peter had a break in his neck, a dislocated elbow and shoulder, and half his ear was hanging off. He rescued his children and called 000. “Please hurry,” he pleaded, as he cradled Jorja, who was crying, while blood ran down his face.
Sarah woke up in hospital with her neck in a brace and her body shooting with pain. “I didn’t come to until I woke up with an almighty contraction,” she says. She had a damaged stomach, a ruptured bowel, injuries to her spleen, liver and lungs, breaks in her vertebrae and ribs, and a ruptured uterus. But by far the worst thing was what she couldn’t feel. The life inside her had quietened. She knew her youngest daughter was gone.
Sarah had to give birth to a baby who would never open her eyes. After the nurses cleaned and dressed the little girl in a knitted cardigan, they placed her in Sarah’s arms. Mother and father held her and kissed her. They named her Sophie and said goodbye.
“She could have been anybody, she could have done anything,” Sarah says. “The whole experience was hell.”
If Sophie had taken a breath, the driver who slammed into their car could have been charged with her death. Instead, Rodney Leigh Shaw was fined $950 and had his licence suspended for five months.
“The magistrate said, ‘It has not escaped this court that you are wholly responsible for the death of Sophie Ella Milosevic. It’s just I have no way to charge you.’ It’s on record he was responsible for her death, but there was nothing they could charge him with,” Sarah explains.
She and Peter were left in a state of disbelief. “He walked away – that’s the heartbreaking thing,” Sarah says. “My child’s life didn’t matter to anyone else. It didn’t matter to the courts. It didn’t matter to the politicians. It didn’t matter to anybody.”
Agitating for change
They were dogged by a sense of injustice, so when Sarah’s injuries began to heal, she started working to close what she saw as a gap in the law. She didn’t want another woman to have to endure what she had. The couple found an ally in their local MP, Ian Rickuss, and later his successor, Jim McDonald, a former police officer and forensic crash investigator.
Together they drafted a piece of legislation called Sophie’s Law, which would recognise a foetus as a human being from 30 weeks. Sarah took a 127,000-strong petition to Queensland’s then Attorney-General Yvette D’Ath, calling for a law to punish criminal acts that result in the death of an unborn baby. The Labor Minister heard her out, but didn’t act. More than six years after her daughter’s death, Sarah still gets frustrated to tears that nothing has changed.
Legal and medical commentators say Sophie’s Law opens the door to challenges to reproductive protections, but Sarah is not wedded to the wording – she just wants reform. She says it is frustrating that policymakers “can’tseem to find that simple line” that recognises a woman’s right not to have her pregnancy ended against her will, without infringing on her reproductive rights.
“It’s about a baby who has been lost because something terrible has happened,” she says. “All I care about is that others don’t have to go through what we did.”
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